A Blupete Biography Page

Attacked, Part 5 to the Life & Works of
John Keats

Keats' first epic poem Endymion, which came out in 1818, is a story about the relationship between a goddess and her human lover. The work came about as a result of a competition between himself and Shelley.33 Rossetti, relates the story, as part of his rather thorough analysis34 of Endymion, that the two should each produce such a work. In the result Shelley came out with The Revolt of Islam; and Keats, Endymion. Rossetti, further observed that "Shelley proved to be the more rapid writer of the two; his poem of 4,815 lines was finished by the early autumn of 1817, while Keats's, numbering 4,050 lines, went on through the winter ..." The first line of Endymion -- "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever" -- is notorious to all lovers of poetry. Clearly, Endymion contains lines of beauty which gives joy to those who read them, but the over all work was considered faulty. This due to the inexperience of the poet and the manner in which the work came into being: it "will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt rather than a deed accomplished."35

In an edition of an Edinburgh paper, Quarterly Review, in 1818, there appeared a critique which "branded into ignominious permanence ... the name and fame of Keats."36 The editor of Quarterly Review was William Gifford (1756-1826) who had been its editor since 1809. It was Gifford's good fortune to be befriended by the rich and famous. As a critic "he was unduly biased."37 In any event Gifford wrote a review of Endymion:

"It is not that Mr. Keats (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody) -- it is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius. He has all these; but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called 'Cockney Poetry,' which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language. ... He seems to us to write a line at random, and then he follows, not the thought excited by this line, but that suggested by the rhyme with which it concludes. There is hardly a complete couplet enclosing a complete idea in the whole book. He wonders from one subject to another, from the association, not of ideas, but of sounds ..."38
Gifford's allegations were likely correct, certainly it was to William Michael Rossetti39; however, Rossetti thought that Gifford's article was "an act of brutalism" a "venom of abuse" "poured into the poetic cup of Keats as an expedient for drugging the political cup of Hunt, an act of partisan turpitude."40

Gifford had an ally in John Gibson Lockhart.41 Lockhart was the editor of another Edinburgh paper, the Blackwood's Magazine. Lockhart readily joined in on the attack on the "Cockney School of Poetry." Actually, Blackwood's, this Tory (conservative) magazine out of Edinburgh had started in earlier, and, indeed, had coined the expression the "Cockney School" in its edition of October, 1817, when in its pages it inveighed against Leigh Hunt who ran the Examiner, a Whig (liberal) magazine out of London. With the appearance of Gifford's piece skewering poor Keats, in 1818, out came Lockhart with his vituperative piece against Keats.

"To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr John Keats. ... He was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady. ... For some time we were in hopes, that he might get off with a violent fit or two; but of late the symptoms are terrible. The phrenzy of the "Poems" was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion."
At the conclusion of the Lockhart review the advise is given that Keats should resume his former occupation: "Back to the [apothecary] shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’"

Benjamin Haydon was to write that the articles against Keats and his poetry had a melancholic effect on the young poet. "[Blackwood's] attacks on all who showed the least liberalism of thinking or who were praised by or known to the Examiner.42 ... On Keats the effect was melancholy. He became morbid and silent, would call and sit whilst I was painting for hours without speaking a word."43

Keats, it would certainly appear from his correspondence at the time, couldn't have treated this attack in a more self-possessed, measured, and dignified spirit. He was to write: "The genius of poetry must work out its own salvation in a man. It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself. That which is creative must create itself. In Endymion I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice. I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest."44

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2011